Why should the life of a prostitute be worthless?

The most vulnerable sex workers end up on the streets, and the police are obliged to arrest, not help, them.
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It was all pretty disturbing. Visiting a friend in Camden a couple of years ago, I had to explain my business to the police before I was let into her block of flats. The Regent's canal ran past her living room and in it, the night before, a dismembered woman's body had been found in six hold-alls. No one knew who she was, although my friend and I, shocked by the comings and goings outside, expected that the whole story of this woman's life would soon be uncovered.

But the most shocking thing of all, perhaps, is that we never heard anything much about the victim of this ghastly crime. Her name was Paula Fields, she was 31, and she was a prostitute. That was pretty much it. The arrest of two men came to nothing and, nearly three years later, no one is closer to knowing how she came to be cut up and put in half-a-dozen bags.

We do know that Anthony Hardy lived a few hundred yards away from where her body was found. He admitted this week that he had murdered three prostitutes, dismembered them and secreted them in bags around his locality. It is suspected that he killed other women, and the police have looked again at various cases, including the one that my friend and I found so haunting.

Outrage has already been expressed that Hardy had been released from a mental hospital for just a couple of months at the time of his arrest for the brutal murder of two women last December. The outrage is all the more justified because he was admitted in the first place in connection with the death of one of the women he has now pleaded guilty to murdering.

The body of Sally Rose White, 31, was found in Hardy's flat last January, after a complaint about noise from a neighbour. Ms White was a neighbour too, and the noise had been caused when he forced her front door. Though she had sustained various injuries, a post-mortem examination found that Ms White had died of a heart attack. With a natural causes verdict delivered, the police felt there was little that they could do except charge Hardy with criminal damage and commit him into psychiatric care.

Barely nine months later, a panel of three lay people who had not read a report in which various mental health experts warned robustly against his release, decided that he was no threat to the public. That decision led directly to the murders of Elizabeth Valad, 28, and Bridgette MacClennan, 34.

An inquiry has now been launched into how and why the panel reached their conclusion, and Camden and Islington Health Authority is under pressure to remove the three from their duties, pending a result. Yet while it is right that this hideous case should indeed prompt us to look again at inadequacies in the treatment of the mentally ill, and the pressures faced by this under-resourced public service, there are one or two other inadequacies highlighted by this appalling string of crimes that no one seems to be in the least outraged about .

The Scottish journalist Jean Rafferty, under the auspices of the Rowntree Foundation, is at present engaged in research for a book entitled Disposable Women, which investigates society's attitudes to, and treatment of, prostitutes. As her title suggests, Ms Rafferty contends that virtually no value is placed on the lives of prostitutes, who have no rights or status in this country.

Had Sally White not been a prostitute, it is possible that there might have been more interest in what had caused her to sustain a heart attack in Hardy's flat in the first place. Had she not been a prostitute, the panel may have felt less inclined to respect Hardy's human rights and release him. And of course, had all three women not been prostitutes working alone on the streets, Hardy would not have been able to lure them to his flat.

Those who contend that the widespread attention paid to Hardy's crimes suggests that society does care about the deaths of prostitutes are being cock-eyed optimists. It is Hardy, a serial killer, who is attracting headlines, not his victims. The death of a single prostitute hardly ever gets a mention in the national press. In the last 10 years, 60 prostitutes are known to have been murdered in Britain. There may be others, their bodies undiscovered, because missing prostitutes cause even less of a stir than dead ones.

While the conviction rate for murder is high, among prostitutes it is much lower. A third of murder cases involving prostitutes remain unsolved. One regional police chief has admitted that when a prostitute's body is found, the first decision the police have to take is whether to admit that the woman was a prostitute. If they don't, then the public are much more helpful in investigations.

Many people would suggest that prostitutes working on the streets must know the risks, and are responsible for taking them. But that is a simplistic view, which does not take into account the fact that even though prostitution is illegal, it is a complex industry which has some hard and fast rules. Ms Rafferty, at a meeting held this week by the Rowntree Foundation, explained how it was that despite the plethora of saunas, massage parlours and escort agencies - which everybody knows can be a cover for prostitution - so many women still worked on the streets.

The fact is that these places have strict recruitment policies and the women who are too old, too young, too diseased, too tricky or too drug-addicted to pass muster in these barely disguised brothels have no alternative but to go it alone. In other words, it is only the most vulnerable of sex workers who end up on the streets, without protection, even from the police, who are obliged under the law to arrest rather than help them.

All three of Hardy's victims were addicts, and all were desperate. They had nowhere to go and no choices left. Yet while there is little political appetite for the legalisation of prostitution (even though it is estimated that it could bring in tax revenues in excess of £250m), a limited measure of decriminalisation could at least help make these most vulnerable of society's victims a little safer.

In Glasgow, which was shocked into action when in the late Eighties and early Nineties, eight prostitutes were killed in unrelated incidents in as many years, the council now runs a "tolerance zone" around eight streets where prostitution has traditionally thrived.

Aberdeen and Edinburgh have experimented with the approach as well, even though a Bill by the independent MSP Margo MacDonald that hoped to formalise the introduction of tolerance zones in these cities was, in effect, killed off by the Scottish Executive.

Though many people would be repulsed by the idea of offering protection instead of the strong arm of the law to street prostitutes, it really is a humane alternative to the nightmare situation that exists at the moment. Tolerance zones sound like hell for local inhabitants. But, in fact, residents as well as prostitutes are protected by a sympathetic police presence.

Cameras on the scene can offer insurance too, providing a record that guards against later violence or misbehaviour. Tolerance zones are controversial, and even if accepted, are a pretty tawdry concession to the most vulnerable among the oldest profession. But surely they are the least we ought to do, in the face of such violence and such death.